Making a D&I impact

Incoming VP of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at NTT Data UK&I Clare Stephens has set about creating a more diverse and inclusive working environment, building on the firm's achievements as a Financial Times Diversity Leader.

Prior to joining NTT Data UK & Ireland in January this year Stephens held a number of HR leadership roles at IT and tech services provider IBM including D&I leader for EMEA, a role she held since 2017. Stephens’ clearly stated priority now is to ‘drive forward NTT Data’s mission to make the organisation, and the industry as a whole, a more equitable and inclusive place for everyone’. Here’s how...

How are you taking a lead on the issue of increasing female representation at the top of your business?
Increasing diversity and representation is critical to the success of NTT Data UK&I. I am currently re-evaluating every aspect of female development – our internal initiatives and programmes, our talent pipelines and other resources to determine areas for improvement. Once the assessment is complete I will work with internal teams to strategise and develop plans for how to make our diversity more reflective of society and our clients. This will likely mean improving current programmes, talent pipelines and resources as well as introducing initiatives that will make the organisation a more inclusive environment for all.

What initiatives do you participate in to help increase the presence of women on boards in the wider industry?
NTT Data UK&I currently works with a selection of charities and partners that I plan to join and learn from. To name a few, NTT Data works with the 30% Club, The Prince’s Trust, Brilliant Breakfast and Women in Data, among many others. Working with partners like Women in Data, for example, will help inform strategies, programmes and resources that are important for women to have access to at any company. Partners like this can also help identify ways for organisations to make careers in STEM more attractive to women, playing into big factors that help build talent pipelines and increase diversity, feeding into attraction and role modelling.

By not supporting female leaders and a strong diverse presence in boardrooms businesses are self-sabotaging, letting other companies, industries and competitors pass them by

What barriers are there to having more women on boards and how are you addressing these challenges?
Finding a healthier, more diverse talent pipeline is challenging, in large part because of the lack of role modelling and female amplification. Some technology companies are working towards diversifying talent pipelines by improving internship, graduate and mentorship programmes. Improvements like these have helped to a point, but talent pipelines are still lacking significant numbers when it comes to applicants. We also need to look at inspiring the next generation and showing them the career paths they can take.

What more action needs to be taken to boost the number of women on boards?
There are many ways to boost the number of women on boards and more generally across the technology industry. Role modelling, for starters, is a fantastic way to encourage younger generations of women to step out of traditional gender restraints that ‘tell’ them what they can or can’t do. The opportunity to see women happy and successful in professional positions proves that they too can be successful in those roles. People need to see someone who represents them to feel inspired, motivated and supported.
Amplifying women internally and externally is another way to encourage the participation of women in boardroom settings. This could be anything from spotlighting female employees on social media to putting them forward for media opportunities or engaging them in conversation, especially ones that are being dominated by other voices. It is also important to remember that it is not the sole responsibility of women to support and propel other women forward. It is for co-workers, companies and industries to play their part too.

What are the benefits of a strong female presence in boardrooms?
A diverse presence in any boardroom is essential and speaks volumes about how committed an organisation is when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It is also important to have a variety of backgrounds, cultures and various other identifying factors. The more diversity in a room, the greater the variety and strength of ideas proposed. In general, the tech industry traditionally has not elevated DEI as a top priority. Up against new technology innovations, product launches and funding rounds, DEI has been neglected. But those companies pushing aside DEI fail to consider that they are limiting the ideas that could help fuel innovations, launches and more. By not supporting female leaders and a strong diverse presence in boardrooms businesses are self-sabotaging, letting other companies, industries and competitors pass them by.

I am committed to being an upstander and an advocate for anyone who needs to be met where they are at any moment, with more flexibility and an absence of fear

What have been your experiences during your career in terms of being female?
I’ve had my share of road bumps and setbacks as a woman working in the technology industry. Most of them were around the midpoint of my career, a time that proved to be most challenging for me as a new mother. I was returning to my position from maternity leave and my situation was much different from when I left to have my baby. I was returning to a full-time role with a one-year-old, a recent divorce, learning to navigate each day as a single parent, and was becoming accustomed to different life circumstances compared to when I left. Despite this and my need for flexibility I was treated with little accommodation and left that position with some haste. It was a career-limiting move at that time but one I had to take for practical reasons.
There are many women who have experienced similar occurrences where they are offered little to no flexibility as single parents, forcing them to find new roles, companies and ways of life. Because of my experience, I am committed to being an upstander and an advocate for anyone who needs to be met where they are at any moment, with more flexibility and an absence of fear. Many women like myself have also experienced micro-aggressions during their careers, primarily from male counterparts, whether intentional or not. In one of my previous roles I was the only woman in a large team. All my counterparts were male and, even though we all held the same title, I was frequently singled out and asked to make coffee and copies.
How typical are your experiences?
Many women have faced setbacks and experienced things like me. According to our own research, in 2021 nearly three quarters of women have had a negative experience at work because of their gender. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my experiences is that people still underestimate the power of words. There are so many pejorative terms that are still used to talk about women with much fewer still being used for men. Many of the terms targeting women are considered more acceptable to toss into conversations and, whether the harm is intentional or not, the damage is still done. To move forward it is important to consider the influence words can have and that just because they don’t hurt you, that doesn’t mean they won’t hurt someone else.

I’ve had my share of setbacks as a woman working in the technology industry
How can ambitious women influence their own ability to reach a board level position?
This answer lies much more in systemic policies instead of how women can influence their own ability to achieve board level positions. Companies need to implement programmes encouraging womens’ progress and introduce procedures to support them on their journey to board level positions, instead of asking women to find the solution themselves. Something I think everyone should do when searching for a job is to look for an organisation that shares their values, will support them and will listen to them. I personally look for role models at companies and leaders who won’t leave employees to fix problems independently but, instead, will collaborate with employees to action internal and external change.
In your experience, do leadership pipelines include enough women?
As it stands, leadership pipelines do not include nearly enough women. Gender progression still isn’t something top of mind when considering who fits in as a leader or when considering why diverse opinions on leadership teams are essential for progress. Women will typically wait to be told they are ready for a promotion whereas men will typically put themselves forward for it, often resulting in quicker progression to leadership roles.

Leaders should assess their organisation to understand how many women are promotion-ready, then overlay that with how many women are in the promotion process. Typically, there will be a gap here when compared to men and we must understand why that is. Data insights are key to this understanding of the status quo, before resolutions to solve this discrepancy are put in place.
Has the ICT sector in general made progress on increasing diversity at a leadership level?
Progress is being made but it’s moving slowly. Covid created a setback to the progress made, but things are once again moving in the right direction. It will take time, and those who are most successful will commit to improving DEI as an organisation. Appointing DEI-specific leaders to boards and developing diversity strategies that prioritise equal representation are two ways to communicate a commitment to DEI. It’s important that organisations such as NTT Data UK&I continue to set an example of how to approach this critical subject and how the right strategy can not only create a better working environment for all, but also increase revenue.   

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